Monday, February 6, 2012

The Difference Between Clutch and Elite.

The runaway train really started getting up a head of steam two weeks ago at Candlestick Park, and before we become too inured to its self-perpetuating momentum, I need to throw the breaks on. Ever since the New York Giants secured a trip to Indianapolis, one of the "narratives" that we apparently "need to discuss" is whether or not Eli Manning is "elite." After last night, many people are considering that question as settled in the affirmative. I respectfully disagree.

Let's start with this: the term "elite" is defined in a relatively nebulous manner when discussing NFL quarterbacks. Like its distant cousin "clutch", it relies on a sense of perception that can loosely be described as "you know it when you see it and maybe you have some relevant stats to back it up I guess but really it's a subjective thing so you know ... whatever."

Speaking of "clutch", I'm sure we can all agree that Eli Manning fits that particular bill to a T. Most 4th-quarter TDs ever, most playoff road wins ever ... kinda tough to argue. He always seems to stick the landing when it counts. But this is why we spell "clutch" and "elite" differently.

(Attention fans of Big Blue: before you break out the pitchforks and torches, just hear me out. I am not saying that Eli Manning is not a damned good quarterback. He clearly is, and I fully realize that this whole article is somewhat akin to snubbing someone in a Lexus because there happen to be a few Ferraris on the road at the same time. To paraphrase Stephen King, it's a sweet ride, but it ain't, you know, BOSS. I just have to question anybody who places him in a category with Brady, Brees, and his older brother.)

I acknowledge that the evidence supporting Eli's case for ascension to "eilte" status, as determined by a bunch of talking heads but never mind, is substantial in many respects. Seven postseason road wins punctuating 2 superb playoff runs which led to 2 Super Bowl appearances which contained 2 4th-quarter touchdown drives which resulted in 2 Super Bowl Rings and 2 Super Bowl MVPs. Good show, Eli. Pretty stacked resume, there.

Here's my question: Do those rings and awards inherently confer "elite-ness"? Elite, to me, is descriptive of consistent excellence. It implies a flawless command and near-flawless execution at all times. Eli? He's more of a brilliant-flash-of-light-at-the-perfect-moment kind of guy.

In 2008, the Giants got hot at the right time, dismantled a slew of lackluster NFC opponents in the playoffs, and shocked a superior Patriots team on the strength of one of the finest defensive performances in Super Bowl history, and a truckload of luck. That 4th-quarter drive is the first thing everyone points to when making the case for Eli being a top-tier QB, but if you break it down, how responsible for the success of that drive was Manning? Keep in mind, on the play before the Tyree helmet catch, he essentially threw the game-losing interception, except Asante Samuel couldn't hang on to the ball. Then the Tyree play itself: the Giants held the bejeebus out of the Patriots' defensive line, but no flags were thrown. Eli made an ill-advised decision that only worked out because the safety was a second late and Tyree made one of the most improbable plays ever. The ensuing TD throw to Plaxico Burress was admittedly very pretty, but Burress simply smoked the coverage and it's not all that difficult to hit a 6'5", wide-open target if you're an NFL QB, right? (Alex Smith is shaking his head.)

Before we get into this postseason's accomplishments and their eerie resemblance to that '08 run, let me make a few points. First: what might be my most compelling argument against Eli's elite-itude: he lost to the Redskins this season. Twice. By a combined 27 points. Show me an "Elite QB" who would suffer two such ignoble defeats to such a lowly opponent. I'll wait. ... And, moving on.

Second: this is supposedly the year that Eli made "the leap", so let's take a look at his 2011 numbers. According to Football Outsiders, Manning ranked 6th in DYAR and 8th in DVOA. His 61.o regular-season completion percentage ties him for 13th in the league with Matt Schaub. He threw the 6th most touchdowns (29), but also tied with Carson Palmer and Matthew Stafford for the 7th most picks (16). This made for a decent but unremarkable 1.81 TD/INT ratio. Manning was 4th in total yards, 5th in yards-per-attempt, and his QB Rating of 92.9 was good for 7th in the NFL. All of which cumulatively says that Manning is a really, really good quarterback. None of it screams "elite."

Now, about the Giants' playoff run this year: they thrashed a disorganized, crumbling Jets squad and a Cowboys team that oscillated between decent and terrible all year to get in. Fine. Solid wins, in which Eli came up big. Then, he could basically sit back and yawn as the G-Men completely humiliated the Falcons. I hate to break this to you, but 277 yds and 3 TDs is not very impressive against the Falcons' pathetic excuse for a secondary.

It must be said that beating the Packers, at Lambeau, was fairly spectacular. Eli put together a masterpiece of a game, and crushed the defending champs in a complete and terrifying manner. It was a virtuoso performance, and quite possibly the high-water mark of his career in terms of pure execution.

Then, a not-so-shining day against the 49ers led to one of the uglier victories I've ever seen. "Lucky" doesn't even begin to cover it. A back-up kick returner botched 2 critical plays, a forward progress whistle negated what would have been a crucial fumble, and Lawrence Tynes yet again sent the Giants to the big game on an OT field goal that they should never have been in the position to kick.

Yesterday, of course, Manning played a very good game, and was a shade more crisp and accurate than his counterpart on the other sideline, which doesn't happen too often when you're talking about Tom Brady, so credit where it's due. However, I counted exactly one truly spectacular play: that incredible needle-threading to Mario Manningham that went for 38 yards and all the momentum. That was a spectacular pass, but an even better toe-tap catch. Everything else was dink'n'dunk at its most dinky, though I suppose you do in fact play to win game, so the Giants were just doing what was necessary, if not terribly compelling to watch. Even the "game-winning drive" was, aside from that aforementioned bit of pure excellence, essentially conceded by the Patriots. Twice Manning burned what could have been crucial timeouts because he didn't have it together at the line of scrimmage, and he should be sufficiently grateful to whatever football deity didn't ultimately torch him for it. Hoodie made an uncharacteristically foolish mistake in burning a timeout and then allowing Ahmad Bradshaw to waltz/topple-while-trying-to-stop-himself into the endzone untouched. In the end, the Giants were the fortunate beneficiaries of that fluky 12-men penalty, some awful clock management by New England, and Wes Welker dropping a pass he almost never, ever drops as much as anything Eli did.

Be honest with me here: 296 yards and 1 TD is not exactly the kind of performance that you associate with a Super Bowl MVP, but yesterday Eli was the de facto choice in the absence of any other standout efforts. In fact, you could say the exact same thing about Eli's other Super Bowl MVP (255 yds, 2 TD, Int. One huge play and lots of middling-but-effective stuff for the rest of the game.)

Now, let's talk legacy, insofar as it can reflect "eliteness." 2 rings? Can't really argue that. Eli is also now one of 5 multiple-winning Super Bowl MVPs. Dubiously awarded or not, that's still awfully impressive. Again, those are some STRONG bona fides. But Eli has never won a regular-season MVP or Offensive Player of The Year award, of which Peyton, Brady, and Brees have a combined 11. Manning's two Pro Bowl nods were certainly well-deserved, but two isn't exactly an eyebrow raiser, is it?

One final thought: this is the first time a 9-7 team has ever won the Superbowl. (At one point, the Giants were 7-7 and looked all but out of playoff contention.) Teams with elite QBs don't post those kinds of records, because elite QBs never need to pull off late-season voodoo to make the playoffs. They simply dominate from opening day until they're either eliminated or win it all. (Sorry, Phillip Rivers.) The Giants should have owned the NFC East this year instead of clawing their way into the playoffs at the last minute. An elite QB would have seen to that.

Again, Eli Manning is a great NFL Quarterback. He is also obviously, exceedingly clutch. But "elite?" Not yet. Maybe he'll get there someday. Right now, he's still driving a Lexus. It's up to him to earn the keys to that Ferrari.

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